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19.03.2021

A sus law by any other name stinks as much

Reading into 35 years of data, it doesn't take a detective to work why stop and search powers are being used disproportionately

The recent report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) on ‘race’ and policing is, among other things, a stellar example of the limitations of the so-called golden age of data that we are promised will advance humankind no end. For it demonstrates that more than 35 years after the introduction of statutory regulations governing the use of stop and search, the police ‘still cannot explain why these powers are used disproportionately’ on ethnic minorities – especially Black people – compared with White people.

The police have collected a lot of data on stops in this time, a lot of experts have pored over it and the obvious explanation to the question is that UK policing is institutionally racist. But the force cannot bring itself to accept this at the highest level, so it is hard to understand what good producing more data will do to improve operations.

Instead, the benefit of the HMICFRS report may lie in the relative transparency of publishing findings such as the fact that the quality of the grounds for stop and search have ‘lapsed’ (got worse) since the Government watered down the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme. And that only 9% of searches are intelligence-led – the majority (53%) are ‘self-generated’, otherwise known as initiated by an officer on a hunch, based on what ‘they saw or heard’. Half of all searches are for suspected drug possession and black people are subject to a higher rate of drug searches with weak grounds than White people. The majority of searches find nothing, with only a quarter of searches for suspected drug offences actually finding drugs (26% for both Black and White people). 

But the central problem with UK policing is bigger than simply amending the drugs strategy or fixing errors in individual officer decision making. It is systemic, it is structural, and on some level Wendy Williams CBE, who wrote the Foreword to HMICFRS report, knows this. Why else reference George Floyd’s death in the United States in relation to a document about UK policing?

Organisation-wide racial biases in decision-making occur here as well as the US, and are what lead to disproportionate outcomes in stop and search, especially against Black people. It is why our 2018 report, The Colour of Injustice, found that Black people are convicted of cannabis possession at 12 times the rate of White people despite using the drug at a lower rate. It is why a 2018 report from the mayor of London’s office found the representation of Black men on the Met Police’s ‘gangs matrix’ database ‘disproportionate to their likelihood of criminality’. It is why two brothers were stopped and searched for a simple fist bump. It is why certain police officers have themselves been stopped more than 30 times. 

And it is why some of the highest ranked officers in the land echo the exact same defences against our critiques as their predecessors. When the Met’s deputy commissioner Sir Stephen House says stop and search is disproportionate ‘because we stop and search in areas of high crime and high violence’, he is simply rehashing the argument made by former commissioner Sir David McNee 40 years ago about the sus laws. Sir McNee said his own interpretation of the data at the time suggested that ‘Black people are over-represented in offences of robbery and other violent theft.’

There are those who insist that when it comes to the relationship between civilians and the police, the UK is not like the US. They would be right: solutions to the societal problems caused by law enforcement in the US are much more substantial. Where Los Angeles Unified School District voted to slash $25 million from their school police department, the Mayor of London is considering hiring more school police officers. Where an increasing number of US states are decriminalising drug use, the political appetite for doing so here is so lacking that even the leader of the foremost opposition party in the country will not countenance it as policy. Where serious discussions are had in Minneapolis about how to reorganise public safety in the absence of a police force, here we are stuck discussing how fast we can make the ranks of police forces more ethnically representative, and get them to attend anti-bias training classes.

Sir William Macpherson, who passed away earlier this year, defined institutional racism in his landmark report on UK policing as ‘the processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.

The HMICFRS report is the latest in a long line of evidence showing all these things to be true. Nothing short of radical change in policy, example and leadership will solve this problem. Until then, all the data tells us that the application of today’s stop and search laws is no better than the sus laws of old. 

Written by Eugene K, communications volunteer for StopWatch UK coalition.

Photo by @laimannung on Unsplash

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